Introduction

Works are listed below not according to any order in which I encountered the stories and when they sent me reeling. It is obvious that 20th-century white male writers were overwhelmingly significant to my early reading patterns and reelings-in to the short story form. The momentum gathered along these bookshelves means that I now spin away from them.

‘A Labour of Moles’ by Ivan Vladislavić

A business of ferrets, a skulk of foxes, a drudgery of lexicographers: everybody loves an evocative collective noun. It was for this most chirpheaded of reasons that I clocked this slim, red-spined Sylph Edition in a secondhand bookshop. Vladislavić was not a name I recognized and it was purely because of the pamphlet’s pleasing title, the fact its pages had a beautiful weight to them and the wonderful illustrations — watercolour splashes across technical illustrations from the Duden Bildwörterbuch‘ pictorial dictionary, printed on tracing paper — that my idle curiosity became a more committed browsing. By the end of the first paragraph, my jaw was on the floor.

A strange narrator explores the strange limits of a strange new world: indexed language itself. This short story has all the charge of a murder mystery, the playful wince and winch of Carrollian rabbitholes and the whirl of a prose-poem. ‘A Labour of Moles’ changed my relationship to the alphabet.

Cahier Series #17, published by University of Chicago Press through Sylph Editions with the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris in 2012

‘The Mountain Inn’ by Guy de Maupassant

I was pronouncing ‘Guy’ incorrectly, the librarian told me. Still getting used to being comfortable with choosing my own etiquette for approaching collections, I read the title story first as a light bedtime treat. I read it again. I kept reading under my covers with a torch until four in the morning, the first time I had ever seen that time on a clock. The underside of my duvet was an alpine slope, the shadows in my curtains were the trunks of sycamores and rifle butts, a knot of wood on my desk was a screaming, hopeless mouth. Nowadays perhaps I would attempt to categorize the stories as psychological thrillers or ghost stories or tight, taut, social commentaries—all I knew at the time was that the final sentence of ‘The Mountain Inn’ reversed the flow of blood in my veins and that the next day when I saw a large-eyed, soft-pawed dog chasing after a ball in the park, I burst into tears and would not be consoled.

Translated by H. N. P. Sloman. Found in a soft, green 1957 Penguin books with a far too sedate cover, available to read online here

‘The Schartz-Metterklume Method’ by Saki

‘Seconds after telling a fellow soldier to Put that bloody cigarette out,” Munro was shot through the head by an enemy sniper aiming for the lit cigarette.’ Every single one of H. H. Munro’s short stories is a study in how to handle delight, frailty, cruelty and absurdity with gorgeous lucid prose. ‘The Schartz-Metterklume Method’ is an unskittish but nose-thumbing, joyful sketch that covers trust, power, a fraudulent governess and merely THE WAYS BY WHICH OUR ENGAGEMENT WITH HISTORY CAN UNRAVEL.

As a side-note: the writer and composer Timothy Thornton has mentioned a couple of times that he would like to make an opera based on Saki’s short stories and sometimes I think I live only to see this happen.

‘Razor’ by Vladimir Nabokov

Generally I’d say one should read Nabokov to experience language as a release of birds but my relationship to ‘Razor’ is not really representative of this. I had been reading pieces of his thick, lush prose and feeling heady with the sheer exhilaration of it—thank god for short stories, where you can sustain momentary whiplash from a plot or sentence and pretend it’s giddiness. This story centres on the chance encounter of two old acquaintances, and a shift of power that occurs in front of a mirror and beneath a lathered brush.

Reading ‘Razor’ is to feel the testing of metal across your throat.

First published, in Russian, as ‘Britva’ in 1926. Read in Collected Stories as part of Penguin Modern Classics in 2001. Translated by Dmitri Nabokov, the writer’s son, in 1995

‘The Second Person’ by Ali Smith

To my mind, nothing can convey flares of tenderness like a short story (…possibly this says more about me than I’d like) and no-one conveys flares of tenderness like Ali Smith. ‘The Second Person’ feels as personal as an anecdote and as universal as a fable, wheeling without ever being wheedling and ridiculous without being laughable. That’s what every great love story should be, and this one  also features accordion shops and Ella Fitzgerald. Prat-fall into love with Smith’s light touch and then read everything else by her right now right now right now.

(First Collected in The First Person and Other Stories, Hamish Hamilton, 2008. First published in and available to read on Prospect, 2005, here)